Today at 3:00, I officially made it to Spring Break.
On Wednesday, March 16, when my pregnant daughter’s baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, teaching high school until April 1st seemed an impossibility. I took Thursday off and drug myself into the high school that Friday, confessing to my boss, “We’re watching Ice Age [Dawn of the Dinosaurs]. It’s an epic. It has archetypes. And I’m here.”
I told my classes; they had expected me to return knowing the baby’s gender, not with the devastating news that she had a birth defect and would die. I didn’t have my speech right for my first class: it was rushed, and raw. I told the next two classes, “You don’t have to do anything, or say anything. Even adults don’t know what to say or do.” They were saddened, but relieved to know that I wouldn’t expect them to turn into wise church mice. During the movie, when I forced myself to holler, “Watch, here I come!!” [at 1:04-1:19], a part of my annual teacher schtick that never fails to get chuckles, each class roared with laughter. It was true: that was SO Mrs. Grimes. Also true? If I was making them laugh, I was still in there, behind those bankrupt eyes.
My mission for the next ten days was to assemble a Mrs. Grimes over a brokenhearted Rachel. To wake up at 5:50 AM, go to work, pass out snacks and pencils, listen to boyfriend woes, cluck over jammed fingers, admire newly gained drivers’ licenses, confiscate cell phones, call parents, grade papers, write lesson plans: all while thinking, “My granddaughter’s skull does not have a top”–and not letting that thought show.
Of course, my class also was reading a Holocaust memoir. Five hours a day of torture. Dead babies. Starvation. Heartbreak. Never has a unit been wrapped up more quickly–fifty multiple choice questions later, we were done, fleeing Nazi Germany for JD Wetherell’s “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant,” where nothing dies, not even the fish.
And we were safe. Somehow, between Day Two of my return, when nothing mattered, nothing at all, and Day Ten, things improved. I can’t live this in front of them began to morph into a fragile, I am living this. In front of them.
Teachers have a permanent audience. All of the time. Go braless to Kroger? There will be ten witnesses. Wear a bikini on a beach 200 miles from home? A student will be there, too. Get pulled over for speeding? Every busybody in town will see.
We are constantly on stage, watched and evaluated.Let a teacher misspeak, and his career can be over in a moment. It’s fodder for the grapevine when teachers crack; it’s front page news when they abandon their morals. In the world of mass media, the very worst are the most newsworthy.
But whom do we, the average people, remember? The best teachers. The kindest.
I recall the day in second grade when Mrs. Rivenbark looked at my crooked ponytails–my father’s very best effort–and murmured, “Here, let me fix your hair before the others get here.” I recall how Mrs. James, my fifth grade teacher, realized that reading was my escape and celebrated each book I read. Later, when things at home worsened even further, my high school teachers became a trauma team focused solely upon my survival. I was in every club; I attended every weekend tournament; I somehow even became the basketball team’s manager. My teachers did anything to get me out of That House. (Mrs. Dillard and Mr. Fore allowed me in their own homes so often that now, at 46, I can still mentally walk through the rooms.) Surely, all of these teachers had better places to be and more worthy things to do; they had personal crises and families to focus upon. But they never lost sight of the fact that I had to be saved.
My teachers saved me. Not the guidance counselors; not my extended family; not my church; not my best friends’ parents. These people helped, and helped greatly. But teachers pointed the way to the escape hatch. Unrelated, not as emotionally involved, they were able to convey, repeatedly: This stinks for you. I’m sorry. You can have a better, stable life. Daily, they presented me with a future. It wasn’t falsely bright, but it was Separate and Away–a livable space.
Twenty-seven years into the future they glimpsed, I am once again in an unlivable space. A space full of unknowns, with both death and joy close. Our small family hasn’t yet found room to breathe or think. Every TV is on, and every lap has a cat, and we are still adrift.
At school, however, we are anchored. Although none of us are sleeping much, here, we are functioning. In my classroom, the necessity of the facade is lessening; my students tell me I’m 80% back to normal. Perhaps after spring break, I’ll be myself.
Yesterday, as my husband and I approached the school, I remarked, “I’m almost happy.” It was, in that instant, true. School is once again a refuge. This place, where my students moo their answers like cows, draw me pictures of roses, show me home videos, and–on really good days–bring me Icees, this place and the people inside are cheering me up once more.
In case you’ve forgotten, schools are good places where decent people–both children and adults–are willing to daily help one another along. It’s not newsworthy, or even properly appreciated. Nevertheless, it’s done: every morning, students and teachers leave their homes and their troubles for a few hours and help each other to learn and to do, to cobble together survival and daydreams and goals: to create livable spaces and bearable futures.
Even out of heartbreak.